What is posthumanist theory, where does my work intersect it, and why should anyone care?

It’s been a while!  As it turns out, my exams were NOT actually last week, thanks to an organizational SNAFU, so it looks like you’ll be getting a couple more months of my ramblings in here, probably at a slower pace since I’ll be teaching (and therefore possibly interspersed with posts about teaching?  We’ll see).  Today’s post comes from a writeup my committee member overseeing my posthuman affect list asked me to write.  In short, she felt that I had spun off into the outer reaches of the galaxy shouting, “Wooooo, posthumanism!  Affect!  Transductions!” without ever really laying out a broader, more fundamental idea of the field first.  So I wrote the following thoughts about how I view posthumanism, and how I expect it to help me and me to help it.  We’ll have you back to your regularly scheduled programming of book reviews soon!  Until then, enjoy!

Posthumanism: another in the long line of “posts” that seem to characterize (in negative polemics) the navel-gazing tendencies of academia.  What is posthumanism, as opposed to, say, humanism?  Why have some people felt the need to (at least according to the name) discard the human and look for what comes after it?  Humanism as I understand it is a mode of thinking that stresses the human subject first and foremost.  This would seem to be a logical place for the humanities to start as a discipline, but it encounters some roadblocks, which might be boiled down to “solipsism”.  A focus on the individual subject makes a number of elisions.  First and foremost, it elides the specificities of the milieu (both social and physical or environmental) in which that subject finds itself.  Even if humanism does attend to the experience of the world by the subject – as in the phenomenological tradition – those elements of the world which escape the human sensorium are largely ignored.  The human perspective, in other words, is taken as the sovereign perspective on the world, through which the world is organized and made knowable.

When I affix “post” to “humanism”, however, I do not mean to say that I am looking for the “next big thing” to come after the human temporally, as though we can simply discard the human condition and spend our days talking about the crawfish condition.  Instead, I follow Thomas Lamarre’s helpful glossing of “post” in words like “postmodern” – to paraphrase, we enter the postmodern (or posthuman) when we recognize the modern as both inescapable and indefensible.  We cannot simply ignore questions of what it is to be human (the human condition is inescapable), but nor can we deny that there are states, forces, and affects outside the human that make an exclusive focus on the human irresponsible (it is indefensible).  Thus, more than a “way out” of the human, I am looking for possibilities within the human that nevertheless exceed it.  Posthumanism in my mind, then, is a set of theories whose common theme is de-centering the rational human subject as the focus of academic inquiry – destabilizing anthropocentrism, in other words.

Where, how, and why does my work enter this perimeter?  In my dissertation, I plan to research, broadly speaking, technology as a social force acting on individuals, and the ways that force has been imagined in cultural production in Japan.  That we are affected by our material milieus as much as (if not more than) we affect them; that the subject is a dynamic process, rather than a static monad; that we do not approach, interact with, and express ourselves through technological media in an entirely rational way; and that the mode of our interactions with technology is not a purely semiotic one of encoding and decoding information are all assumptions of the posthumanist approach to cultural studies, and assumptions which I share.  Resonant, too, is the idea that the socio-historical specificities of a subject’s milieu are critical to understanding how that subject experiences that milieu – whether we express that experience in terms of affordances, potentialities, relationality, intensities, or the virtual.

This is not to suggest that I have entirely figured out how these theories will fit into my research; questions still remain.  For example, my research will concern cultural production, specifically science fiction media, and the majority of posthumanist theory seems to originate in anthropology, where the concern is more with the social as it exists in reality.  Whether posthumanist theory is better applied to the authors and industries producing the texts, rather than the imagination of technological society within the texts themselves, is still an open question.  Given that science fiction is generally concerned with the less rational and more imaginative side of technology, it may in fact end up being the case that specific science fiction texts constitute their own kind of posthumanist theory, or it could be that analyzing those texts is a task for which the more traditional tools of literary and film analysis are more appropriate.  Also unclear is the specific ways in which Japan will matter conceptually to posthumanist theory.  While posthumanism often calls for attentiveness to material specificity, the majority that I have read is nevertheless Euro-American-centric in its scope, and often guilty of the same assumptions of universality that have plagued such studies in the past.  (I’m thinking here of a chapter in Networked Affect on the “steampunk” aesthetic that completely elides the erasure of European colonialism enacted by that aesthetic in its rush to romanticize the Victorian era.)  There are still areas that I am exploring to try to discover ways in which I might think through the place of my work within posthumanism, and there are still areas of posthumanism itself that are often self-contradictory, such as the competing definitions of affect within the literature.  Few if any of these questions are answered for me in the exam readings, and I will therefore need to continue thinking about them throughout my dissertation research.

Finally, we should spend some time seriously considering the last question in my title: why do we care?  What are the stakes of trying to incorporate that which lies outside the sensible, outside the human?  For me, this is where ethics enters the picture, for we could rephrase “incorporating that which is outside our experience” as “empathizing with or understanding an experience that is Other to our own”.  If ethics is defined as the political and social consequences of a system of thought once it is put into action, then the ethics of the posthuman is precisely its post-ness.  If posthumanism asks us to try to understand that which escapes our own sensorium or view of the world, it is because we can take that practice of actively understanding – of understanding as a present progressive verb – and use it to try to relate better to other subjects, whose experience is necessarily unknowable to us in any kind of visceral or instinctual way.  While the ethics of past humanisms have either effaced that difference in the name of a facile universal humanity – or worse, denigrated difference in the service of conformism – posthumanism recognizes that we cannot know that which is outside ourselves to the same extent we can know what is inside ourselves, but that we can nevertheless move toward understanding at all times.  It is this process which gives the posthuman its stakes.


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